Moving pictures


Perhaps the mass medium with the greatest cultural impact on life in the United States in the last 100 years has been the movies. Since art is also a mass medium, the influence of film and other early popular amusements on art reflects a double whammy — one medium being the mirror and the inspiration for the other.

The complexities of these intermingled influences are being explored in a delightful exhibition called "On the Edge of Your Seat: Popular Theater and Film in Early Twentieth-Century American Art." Part of those complexities and one of the underpinnings of this exhibition is that, despite the claims of traditional movie history, cinema was birthed within vaudeville and its vocabulary derived from that tradition.

The long moniker notwithstanding, the show moves quickly. More than 100 works of art, posters, song sheets, movie equipment and films from 1890-1930 tell the marvelous story of how vaudeville and early film helped to define what it means to be an American. The show was organized by the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, and traveled to Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey before its last stop at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. It will be on display through April 20.

The Phil-adelphia venue is extraordinarily relevant, as many of the artists in the show trained here as newspaper artists and at the Academy. Later recognized as The Eight or the Ashcan School, the group included Robert Henri, John Sloan, William Glackens and Everett Shinn. Other artists in the show include Walt Kuhn, Edward Hopper and Charles Demuth.

Of particular note are Shinn’s Orchestra Pit and the dazzling watercolors of Charles Demuth, whose lively and brilliant abstractions of acrobats and dancers "convey the sense of enormous spectacle associated with this golden age of vaudeville and the coinciding birth of cinema." Indeed, Demuth is the improbable star of this show, despite several breathtaking oils by Shinn and Henri. Sloan holds his own in this company, but the political overtones of much of his work seem out of place in this celebration of popular culture.

Demuth was born in 1883 in Lancaster to a well-to-do family of tobacco merchants. He studied at Drexel and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, traveled extensively as a young man, and never felt any economic pressures on his art. He fancied himself a dandy in the manner of James McNeil Whistler, Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, and maintained a lifelong relationship with architect Robert Locker. He was associated with the circle of artists around Alfred Stieglitz in New York including Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin, Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove.

Demuth is best known for his "precisionist" art of industrial complexes; however, in this show his lesser-known watercolors provide much of the show’s high style. The subjects are dancers and other theatrical and nightclub performers in forms and shapes influenced by Cubism and colors influenced by Fauvism — two movements with which he came in contact while traveling in Europe. He died in 1935 at home, a diabetic invalid, at the age of 53. Much of his work carries a homoerotic overtone, and his floral paintings done overlooking his mother’s garden apparently influenced O’Keeffe’s efforts at exploring the sexual symbolism in flowers.

The exhibition is accompanied by an enlightening catalogue, which goes against the scenarios of most film history concerning the development of the narrative cinema. Evidence is presented that demonstrates the use of early film as a part of vaudeville. The use of the technique of directly addressing the audience as opposed to the more orthodox of the "invisible fourth wall" that allows viewers to "spy" into the lives and actions of the film’s characters is also amply demonstrated.

Many of the works displayed also demonstrate the American artist’s approach to theater and film, which often concentrated on the audience, severe cropping and sometimes awkward angles. Much is also made of the impact on modern life of the electric light as it lit up the urban setting, made it safe and encouraged a nightlife in which the entire family could participate.

The tensions of a fast-paced modern urban lifestyle are reflected in much of the art, which often uses narrative forms to convey the excitement generated by the connection between order and chaos.

The exhibition’s installation with early films, "peep shows," posters and paintings combines art and its history, popular culture and its development, plus a cultural history of the turn of the century — all of which keep the viewer "on the edge of the seat."

On the Edge of Your Seat:
Popular Theater and Film in Early Twentieth-Century American Art
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Tuesday-Saturday Through April 20
118 N. Broad St.
$8 adults; $7 seniors and students; $5 for 18-under; free for 5-under and members